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July 19, 2019 11:45 AM, EDT

Closing the Skills Gaps

Techs Must Master Diagnostics, Electrical
CFI technicians inspect a truck's tiresCFI technicians inspect a truck's tires. CFI staffs one to two techs focused on technology repair for each shift, and less experienced techs focus on developing their skills before moving on to more advanced equipment. (CFI)

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When P.A.M. Transport selects an equipment supplier, the company expects that supplier to train its 85 technicians spread across 10 terminals — in person, not online — so they can maintain and repair those parts.

“Whether it be quarterly, biannually, annually, we expect that if we’re going to spec your equipment on our truck, that you’re going to keep us up to date with the latest and greatest technology, troubleshooting,” said Paul Pettit, vice president of maintenance at the Tontitown, Ark.-based fleet. “What I don’t want to do is put a piece of equipment on a truck or a trailer and have my technicians not familiar with how to fix it efficiently and properly the first time.”

Fleets such as Pettit’s need that extra training because the industry is continually advancing, because many technicians lack skills in certain areas, and because it’s not easy to find other skilled technicians at a time when the industry faces a labor shortage.

Pettit said the most common skills gaps among his technicians are in computer diagnostics, followed in order by electrical components, aftertreatment systems and collision mitigation systems.

Computer diagnostics is “probably the biggest area that takes us the longest to get everybody up to speed on,” he said. At one time, younger technicians adapted more easily to fill that need, but the gap between them and older technicians has closed as most technicians regardless of age understand the need for those skills.

P.A.M. Transport ranks No. 65 on the Transport Topics Top 100 list of the largest for hire carriers in North America.

Like P.A.M. Transport, North Little Rock, Ark.-based Maverick Transportation takes advantage of outside providers to fill gaps in technicians’ knowledge, especially if the fleet changes components.

Brent Hilton, Maverick’s director of maintenance, has manufacturers provide in-house classes each shift to train every technician. Purkeys, a consulting firm, has trained technicians in using electrical products.

Lighting provider Truck-Lite trained technicians on wire crimping, which Hilton said is an important skill, particularly working with flatbeds, where many wires are exposed.

Maverick has about 115 technicians servicing about 1,600 trucks in seven locations. Finding skilled technicians can be difficult, Hilton said. Schools teach the basics, but then Maverick provides what amounts to an apprenticeship as they gain skills in thousands of applications.

Hilton estimated that Maverick’s technicians spend about 75 hours a year in training. The carrier requires technicians to train an hour a week, for which they’re paid, and then training occurs at other times. Much of technicians’ pay is based on training.

Maverick USA ranks No. 77 on the Transport Topics Top 100 list of for-hire carriers in North America.

Jack Legler, technical director at the Technology & Maintenance Council, a council of American Trucking Associations, sees an increasing need for technicians skilled in handling electrical ­issues. A survey conducted last year found a significant deficit in those skills.

Trucks have many electrical systems, onboard computers and telematics systems, Legler said. Technicians must know how to fix all of this without harming those systems as well as others, or themselves.

Maverick technician repairs a rear light harness

Maverick's Christopher Mayadd repairs a rear light harness. The elaborate wiring job had been done by an outside repair facility while the truck was on the road. (Maverick Transportation)

Meanwhile, he foresees electric trucks becoming more common in the coming years, especially in Classes 4-6 vehicles. Even if fleets never buy an electric truck, they still may use electric reefers.

“It’s data skills, electrical skills, and as much as anything else, it’s not messing them up when you’re working on other things on the truck,” Legler said. “Even if you’re not the person who specializes in that area, you can certainly mess up somebody else’s very expensive systems by not knowing what you’re doing.”

Maverick’s Hilton anticipates electric trucks becoming widely available soon, but he believes the components will be so enclosed that fleet technicians won’t do much maintenance on them. Instead, work will be sent away to a closed, dustless environment. Otherwise, the manufacturer would void the warranty.

Louisville-based Usher Transport’s 20 technicians maintain 60 company trucks and 400 tanker trailers at shops in Louisville, in Paducah, Ky., and in Atlanta.

Keith Judd, director of maintenance, said there aren’t that many technicians entering the field. Many became mechanics “because their dad was a mechanic and their grandpa was a mechanic,” he said. “That’s not the way it is anymore.”

“Most of the younger guys are coming in, their dads did different things, and they’re coming into the industry sort of really, really green in it,” he said.

Usher Transport will hire technicians who have only mechanical skills, Judd said. They can change the oil and work below the frame. But engines, transmissions, rear ends — that’s where a professional must be able to use the software, which he said is not ­overly complicated. He can teach a mechanic to use a computer, but he can’t teach a computer engineer to be a mechanic.

“We hire wrench-turners, we still do, and we continually will, but we try to train those guys within the company of being able to use the laptops,” he said.

Judd said the fleet does about a third of the sensor work for its tractors, but it does almost all the work on the trailers. It takes about six months before he’s comfortable letting a technician work without close super­vision. “I don’t just let the new guys get in there and start messing with the trucks,” he said.

Joplin, Mo.-based CFI staffs one to two technicians focused on technology repair for each shift. Less experienced technicians focus on developing their skills before moving on to more advanced equipment.

“As technicians progress in their career and are more confident in their mechanical skills, they’ll be introduced to the technology repair processes,” said Steve Studer, CFI’s director of maintenance. “What we find is that mechanics with technology interests will gravitate toward learning the function and repair of those devices.”

Studer said collision mitigation systems require the most continuous updating of skills. Radar systems in the front of the truck live in a “very harsh world” and must frequently be replaced. Wiring problems due to water and corrosion are common. Drivers frequently experience false alerts due to bridges and overpasses, requiring technicians to troubleshoot the system.

[It's] hard to find techs today — as hard as it ever was.

Brent Hilton, Maverick Transportation director of maintenance

Taylor, Mich.-based Atlas Trucking opened a 73,000-­square-foot facility in January that serves its own fleet and others. It employs 16 technicians and in June was adding two more.

Marc Scibilia, director of safety, maintenance and fleet operations, said the biggest challenge is finding technicians with certifications.

Scibilia said many technicians have some computer diagnostic skills but haven’t been formally trained. It takes 12 to 18 hours to get them fully up to speed in that area. The fleet’s program is user-friendly and compatible with most original equipment software. Many technicians have limited knowledge about disc brakes, so the company sends them to classes provided by the vendor.

“Everything in these trucks right now is going toward electronics, and it’s going to get harder and harder to find somebody that’s well-versed in all these systems in the trucks,” he said.

TMC’s Legler said the other coming technological change is autonomous vehicles. With the driver no longer in the seat, the maintenance department will be the ultimate safety signoff on the truck.

But as electric trucks and autonomous trucks become more common, Scibilia fears manufacturers will hesitate to share proprietary information with independent shops.

Regardless of how the technology advances, fleets will have to find qualified technicians, or at least capable ones that they help become qualified.

“My boss always told me, he said one of these days a technician’s going to make as much as doctors do,” Maverick’s Hilton said. “And I don’t know if we’re getting close to that or not, but it’s hard to find techs today — as hard as it ever was.” 